Trans-border Activism: A Casualty of Cold War II

Trans-border Activism: A Casualty of Cold War II

International NGOs that assist citizens suffering from the abuses of corporations and environmental degradation are increasingly seen by governments as nuisances, embarrassments and even as threats to national security. Russia, India and Canada are a few of the nations that have protested against these “meddlers” and looked for ways to keep them out.
At first glance, it seems absurd to say that well-intentioned organizations should be banned and stopped from assisting helpless victims with their struggles for justice. But the governments that are complaining about the interference are not entirely wrong for being upset with the political affiliations and agendas of some groups that come under the guise of helping vulnerable people suffering injustices. Unfortunately, there are organizations operating across borders who are giving a bad name to the NGOs that truly are independent and focused solely on helping the disenfranchised. These fake NGOs, or once-respected NGOs now compromised by deals with government or corporate agendas, are like the black block thugs who show up at peaceful demonstrations and give the larger movement a bad reputation.
A case in point is the recent pressure that Russia put on the Russian NGO Planet of Hopes. For fifteen years the founder, Nadejda Kutepova, helped victims of the Southern Urals radiation disasters in their struggles to win recognition and compensation. In July 2015, she fled Russia after being vilified in the media and threatened with prosecution for being a “foreign agent” because of one of the donations she accepted. She is now in France where she has applied for asylum.[1]

Nadejda Kutepova (left) in a photo from the Radio-Canada
report on radiological contamination in the Southern Urals
There is no disputing the value of the work she did, or the goodness of her cause. There are so many ways the Russian government could have done the right thing so that Ms. Kutepova would not have needed to look outside Russia for support. Russia could have stopped the financial harassment that was designed to neutralize Planet of Hopes, and it could have created some easy terms under which the organization could continue to operate. It could have even offered a government grant to replace the objectionable source of foreign funding. Or a real genius move would have been to just take responsibility for the consequences of the environmental catastrophe so that ordinary citizens wouldn’t have to go bankrupt, scrounge and beg for the money needed to assert their rights. But that would have required the government to face up to some unpleasant facts about its global nuclear reactor sales campaign, which depends on promises to treat foreign-generated nuclear waste back at the Maiak plant in the Urals.[2] Furthermore, facing up to the consequences would highlight the danger of renewing the nation’s nuclear arsenal. Unfortunately, Russia has too much at stake, so it can’t tolerate dissenting voices that just want the state to take responsibility of the damage that has been caused.
Nonetheless, the Russian government had some good reasons to be displeased with the activities of many American “NGOs” and “independent non-profit organizations” that have been active in Russia for many years. Unfortunately, the organization which Ms. Kutepova accepted donations from, the American National Endowment for Democracy (NED), is one which the Russian government objected to. NED makes no secret of the fact that it is financed by the US Congress, although it makes the implausible claim that its sponsor has no political influence because it has an “independent” board.[3] A report in The Guardian cited the Russian accusation that NED gave $14 million to support the overthrow of the Ukrainian government in 2014.[4]
Gerald Sussman’s 2006 paper on American “democracy assistance” since the 1990s gives a full account of NED’s role as one of the primary organizations that have been active in promoting American interests in the post-Soviet world. The introduction reads:

The methods of manipulating foreign elections have been modified since the heyday of CIA cloak and dagger operations, but the general objectives of imperial rule are unchanged. Today, the U.S. government relies less on the CIA in most cases and more on the relatively transparent initiatives undertaken by such public and private organizations as the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Freedom House, George Soros’ Open Society, and a network of other well-financed globetrotting public and private professional political organizations, primarily American, operating in the service of the state’s parallel neoliberal economic and political objectives.[5]

 Thus Planet of Hopes, with its small NED grant, became collateral damage in the great game being played out over eastward NATO expansion. This raises the question of whether NED ever really cared about how the pursuit of bigger goals would leave small organizations like Planet of Hopes twisting in the wind once the backlash came. After all, it’s not as if the US government or NED has ever been morally outraged by the consequences of operating nuclear facilities outside of Russia. The tactic of funding an anti-nuclear activist in Russia raises the question of whether a sincere and dedicated activist, and the people she helps, were cynically used in a bid to slow down the Russian nuclear project, to give GE-Hitachi and Toshiba-Westinghouse a fighting chance against Rosatom’s growing dominance in nuclear exports. If NED had a few million dollars to meddle in Ukraine, it is obvious now that it owes Ms. Kutepova a few euros to help her live in exile, but this would present another dilemma for her. If she accepted, this would be taken as proof by the Russian government that she really was under America’s wing.
It is also notable that while NED took this keen interest in helping the victims of Russia’s Cold War nuclear contamination, it turned a blind eye to the similar legacy on the home front. For example, the Hanford Downwinders lawsuits crawled through the justice system for decades because the plaintiffs were no match for the large corporations that had a guarantee of government subsidy of their legal fees. Rather than settle they just kept enriching Kirkland and Ellis, a Chicago law firm, in order to stall the case until the victims gave up or died.[6] How would the American public react if a Russian government-funded organization stepped in to help the farmers who lived downwind from America’s Cold War plutonium factory? How would it not be conceived of as interference in national security?
For Ms. Kutepova, the decision to take the NED grant may have been naïve, or something done out of frustration with the official harassment she was subjected to. It is something she didn’t explain in her recent interview with journalists from the French magazine Mediapart. [7] If she was not able to read English or not well-informed about American propaganda methods, she probably walked into this situation not fully aware of the pitfalls that lay ahead. In any case, her work remained focused on helping victims of radiation poisoning and nothing else.

Photo from the Radio-Canada report on
radiological contamination in the Southern Urals
For anyone who follows American politics, the NED website has several tip-offs that immediately flag it as smoothly aligned with American foreign policy. For example, it gave an award to Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner for doing something unspecified related to democracy promotion. A map of its grant recipients shows that it has an interest in promoting democracy only in countries that have resisted American neoliberal economic policies. Countries like Cuba and Venezuela are deemed to be in dire need of democracy development. On the other hand, NED shows no interest in fostering democracy at home. It has nothing to say about voter registration, reform of the electoral college, reform of the first-past-the-post system, district gerrymandering, making election day a holiday, or eliminating the influence of corporations on election campaigns. Nor does it find any flaws in American allies like Indonesia and Japan. West Papua could use a democracy enhancement grant so that it could teach the world how their nation was given away to Indonesia in a sham election in 1969 in which a total of only 1,000 votes were cast at gunpoint.[8] Or a grant could go to Japan to help it find ways to get more than 50% of eligible voters to the polls.[9]
In all of this there is a grim lesson for anyone who wants to organize support for any cause. All would-be donors have to be vetted for their ties to governments or to how they are beholden to other interests, and in many cases these will not be easy to uncover. Even when a source of support seems untainted, there is no way to be sure that the national government will not declare it as a “terrorist” organization or foreign agent because questioning national projects like nuclear energy or oil sands development is now framed by governments as threats to economic security, which is then equated with national security.
Photo from the Radio-Canada report on radiological
contamination in the Southern Urals
None of what I’ve written here should be taken as a criticism of Nadejda Kutepova’s solid record of defending victims of radiation poisoning, nor do I take sides in the New Cold war or find reason to rejoice in the fact that Russian cruise missiles are now falling on the Middle East instead of American cruise missiles. I feel disgusted, and though I wouldn’t wish harm on anyone, Mercutio’s line from Romeo and Juliet comes to mind: A plague a' both your houses! Any nation that still insists on mining uranium, creating nuclear waste and possessing nuclear weapons has indeed cursed itself with no help from enemies. It brings the nuclear plague and a pathological security obsession upon itself.

UPDATE 2016/09/13: Read the exchange between Jill Stein, presidential candidate for the American Green Party, and two persecuted Russian environmentalists, Yevgeniya Chirikova and Nadezhda Kutepova.


[1] Amélie Poinssot and Michel de Pracontal, “A Russian antinuclear activist asks for asylum in France,” Mediapart, October 2, 2015. English translation at: http://nf2045.blogspot.jp/2015/10/a-russian-antinuclear-activist-asks-for.html

[2] Jason Zasky, “Plutopia” (interview with author Kate Brown), Failure Magazine, January 19, 2014, http://failuremag.com/feature/article/plutopia/

[4] Alec Luhn, “National Endowment for Democracy is first ‘undesirable’ NGO banned in Russia,” The Guardian, July 28, 2015, 

[7] Amélie Poinssot and Michel de Pracontal.

See also:

Daria Litvinova, "TV Witch Hunt Drives Human Rights Activist Out of Russia," Moscow Times, October 15, 2015.

"Leftist MP wants to brand media companies financed from abroad," Russia Today, October 22, 2015, https://www.rt.com/politics/319383-leftist-mp-wants-to-brand/ 

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